Rabbi brings music, joy to Jews in state facilities

Jewish heritage, religious observance and celebration belong to all Jews. But what about those Jews who are out of sight — far removed from the mainstream Jewish community — like residents of state facilities for the developmentally and mentally disabled?

Who blows the shofar and makes a seder for them?

San Rafael Rabbi Bernie Robinson does.

Robinson is a modern-day circuit-riding rabbi. For the past 12 years he has visited with and conducted services for Jewish residents at Sonoma Developmental Center, Napa State Hospital and Agnews Developmental Center in San Jose.

"The people here [at Sonoma Developmental Center] are entitled to all the opportunities and rights of people outside in the community," says Robinson. "We endeavor to ensure that they have those opportunities. Jewish heritage is theirs as much as anyone else's."

In addition to holding regular services, Robinson makes sure Jewish holidays are celebrated, including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and Passover.

"Passover is our biggest event," says Robinson. The kitchens prepare a traditional seder including matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, charoset, bitter herbs and all the rest. The meal is served at lunch, and, in addition to the Jewish residents, many of the facility's staff participate.

According to Robinson, 31 of the 920 residents of Sonoma Developmental Center are Jewish. Anywhere between 10 and 15 of them regularly attend his twice-monthly service. Some know little bits and pieces of the prayers and chime in when they can. Others hum, rock back and forth in their chairs or make random sounds.

While many of the attendees may not understand the nature of the service, Robinson is sure that they all "understand the warmth of the service."

And to watch Robinson interact with the residents during and after the service speaks of love, warmth and patience.

"Atone, that means `make up'," Robinson explains during a prayer service at Sonoma Developmental Center the week before Yom Kippur. He tells the group of 15 to learn from mistakes and bring "brightness into the lives of those we love."

Candles are lit and prayers are chanted as Robinson, wearing a yarmulke and tallit, shakes a tambourine. As the service closes he blows the shofar.

Afterward, everyone has cookies and juice while a tape-recording of Hebrew songs and prayers plays in the background.

"The best tool I have is music," says Robinson. "Everyone can relate to songs. You can get a smile out of everyone with a song."

Robinson is a chaplain, employed by the state of California. Although his purpose is religious, he receives no financial support from the Jewish community.

He spends one day a week at the Sonoma and Agnews development centers and three days per week at Napa. He makes rounds, visits Jewish and sometimes non-Jewish residents, and on alternate weeks leads services.

"People think that people with developmental disabilities don't need the religious experience," says Teresa Murphy, Sonoma Developmental Center public relations director. "But [they] all have the same needs. There should be no boundary dividing us."

In addition to a rabbi, the state employs Catholic and Protestant chaplains who also visit and lead services.

Located in Eldridge, seven miles north of the city of Sonoma in the Valley of the Moon, Sonoma Developmental Center sits on 1,600 acres. The campus is bucolic, with tree-lined streets, manicured lawns and scattered buildings. The residents range in age from 5 to 98, with single or multiple disabilities so severe that they are unable to function in a less-restrictive environment.

It is a center — not a hospital — and the people who live there are "residents" or "clients," not patients, says Robinson. The implication of the words "hospital" and "patient," he says, is that the people can be cured.

"We do not regard the people here as sick," says Robinson. "That's how they are."

The goal, according to Robinson, is to help everyone "achieve their highest potential for independence and enjoyment of the quality of life."

And that includes participation in religious life.

Just getting people to the services, says Murphy, requires major orchestration of volunteers, buses and attendants.

Volunteers Betty and Harold Kale, whose soon-to-be 50-year-old daughter has lived at the center since 1972, have been helping out every other week for the past 17 years. Their tenure predates Robinson and goes back to when Rabbi Harry Levenberg was the chaplain.

"It's a terrific place," says Betty Kale, 78, a Holocaust survivor. She speaks glowingly of the accommodations and loving care the residents get.

In all, there are about a half-dozen regular volunteers, but that number will soon increase. Robinson has contacted synagogues in the area asking for more help and has gotten several commitments.

Robinson, who was raised in the Bay Area, served as a congregational rabbi for 13 years and a hospital chaplain for six years in the Chicago area before taking this job.

Although his "congregation" is smaller and less engaged than those in the past, Robinson still finds satisfaction in his work.

"[It's] knowing that I'm bringing a dimension into people's lives that raises the quality of their lives and brings them joy."